Today I held a Westminster Hall debate on the safety of young people and the impact that organised crime is having both in West Ham and across the country. Below you can find a video of me giving the speech, as well as a full written copy of the speech I gave, with the interventions my colleagues gave during my speech included.
I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Government’s response to organised crime and young people’s safety.
It is an absolute pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
Nine young lives have been lost to violent crime in West Ham since 2017. Nine teenagers and young adults, with their whole life ahead of them, needlessly and tragically stolen from us. Nine lost children, who are mourned by their families every single day. Although there has been relative calm in West Ham this summer compared with last, the reason for this spike in violence still haunts our communities and our streets. County lines, as we know, is organised crime. It is adults grooming our children—mostly our young boys—and sending them off to deliver and sell drugs all over the country.
These people have created a cruelly efficient business model to distribute and sell drugs, using our children as expendable, cheap labour to enable large profits. It is a cycle of grooming. It is a cycle of abuse. It is a cycle of exploitation that has become an industry. The children live terrifying a existence, witnessing depravity and violence almost day to day. It is a modern-day version of sending children up chimneys. They are disposable children, making big profits for the criminals who control and exploit them.
I know that the Minister knows this. I have had several conversations with the Government about these issues over the past year. I am sure the Minister will tell me that losing 21,000 police officers, and the fact that the Metropolitan Police Service has lost more funding per person than any other force in the country, has nothing whatever to do with it. However, as I understand it, we have completely failed to identify, arrest, charge or prosecute those at the top of these organisations—those who are making a small fortune pimping our children as drug mules and reaping a good living from the destruction of our children’s lives.
The police are doing their best. I hope the County Lines Co-ordination Centre that opened this week will help. In the past year, there have been almost 100 arrests in Newham of those young drug dealers who laughingly call themselves “elders”. I know they do not consider themselves to be on the bottom rung of the gang hierarchy, but they are not the people who are in control of the organisation.
I, and the people I represent, want to know that we are making more headway in our fight against organised crime, that we are going to get those further up the food chain and that those who are controlling organisations, controlling children and reaping substantial economic benefits are going to be caught. I am happy to take a confidential briefing from the Minister on this, because I am not interested in party political points, but I want reassurance that those responsible for the creation and running of this sickening business are in our collective sights and will soon be serving very hefty prison sentences. I hold them accountable for the deaths in my community, the premature and heartless deaths of many of our young children, regardless of who finally pulled that trigger or wielded that knife.
This is my first ask. I want to know that we are putting money into locating, charging and throwing the book at those responsible at the very top of these organisations. I want assurances that we are closing in on them and that they will soon be languishing at Her Majesty’s pleasure, all assets seized.
My second ask is about providing our children with resilience against the grooming techniques of these criminals and their minions. Many of us talk about the value of youth clubs and supported play opportunities, using sport to divert children from crime. It is not that we believe that the provision of a table-tennis table per se will divert a child from the wrong path; it is the professional adult who accompanies the table tennis table, who our children can relate to and confide in, who can offer insights and strategies for dealing with the groomers and the gangs and help our children to navigate the minefield that is their lives.
Children need to know how to say no. They need to be given the skills and tools to resist the manipulation of the groomers. That takes resources; the Home Office cannot provide all the resources on its own, but crime prevention and victim support funding have a vital role to play in filling those gaps in the short term. We also need to develop a joined-up, strategic safeguarding response to the criminal exploitation of young people, with schools, social services, community groups and detached youth workers all playing their part. Teachers, parents, police officers and social workers need to understand the real threat of exploitation and grooming by organised criminals and what is in their power to do to stop it.
[Intervention from Alison Thewliss] The hon. Lady is making some excellent points. Is she aware of the work of Scotland’s violence reduction units, which take a multi-agency approach to young people who were offending and at are risk of offending, to divert them into more productive activities, and the success that has come from that, seen in the reduction in youth offending in Scotland?
[Lyn Brown continues] I thank the hon. Lady for that. I certainly think the only way forward is a multi-agency approach. I hesitate to say that the co-ordinating role should be placed at local government’s door, given the swingeing cuts that it is absorbing, but there is already a legal wellbeing framework that this work could fall under. The Home Office has a responsibility to demand such strategies from local government and strategic partners, to ensure that they are in place and that there are resources to provide for them. That is my second ask: a strategy and the necessary investment in services that provide resilience for children. I humbly suggest that professional youth and play workers are essential to that activity.
My third ask is about training for those in the field, who may not understand the full malignancy of the beast we are dealing with and how it cleverly manipulates our stretched services and staff to keep a child within its clutches. My constituent—I will call her Deepa—was increasingly concerned about her son. He had fallen in with a bad crowd at school, although she did not know it, but she knew he was slipping away from her. His best friend had been excluded from school for drug-related activities, but she did not know.
Alarm bells should have started ringing at the school when Deepa told them that her son was starting to spend more time away from home without any explanation, simply going missing, sometimes for days at a time. He had clothes and a phone that she had not provided and that he had no resources to pay for. He was yet another child being groomed and drawn into criminal activity, vulnerable to violence; I am sorry to say that, two years on, that is still the case.
Deepa raised her concerns at school, but the groomers are very clever. They know how to manipulate the system. Her son told the school that parenting was the problem, that she was too strict; he hinted at abuse, and that was it. Not only could Deepa not get any information or help from the school or social services once the allegations had been made, but she was put under investigation. His absences were placed at her door. They were her fault. It is clear that the social workers and the school involved simply did not understand the nature of the crime or the criminals they were dealing with.
Deepa and her son have also, sadly, been let down by a charity paid for by public funds to provide mentoring for her boy, to do intensive work with him to help him exit the gang. He was up for it. Things had happened that terrified him, boys he knew were dead or injured, but this charity was only paid for three sessions and he needed more. Things escalated. He needed help. He phoned them, wanting to talk to his mentors, absolutely desperate, but they did not respond. They had done their three sessions and they had no more money to do others. Deepa wanted to pay for sessions herself, but she could not; they were way too expensive. Her window to exit her boy from a gang is likely to be closed because the services that she needed did not have access to funding.
How much more expensive will putting that child into custody—that is where it is going—and reoccurring reoffending be over the years to come? The Minister must know that it is a false economy. It will be another life wasted. My third ask is for effective, up-to-date training for professionals who come face to face with the strategies that criminals employ, and to provide those professionals with the resources that they need to fund effective treatments and techniques to remove our children from the clutches of these criminal gangs.
As the Minister knows, in order to catch these criminals we need information. Those with the information in the midst or at the edge of the gangs live in absolute fear, convinced that we—the state—cannot or will not protect them. Our children have no trust whatsoever in the systems that we have created, so they do not engage. If we are to get the information that we need, we will need to find new ways for our children and our communities to report to us. Frankly, as the Minister probably knows, Crimestoppers is simply not trusted.
My young constituents absolutely believe that calls to Crimestoppers are traced by the police, and that callers are attacked for being snitches as a result. There is no doubt in their minds that Crimestoppers is not safe, and that the police will arrive at their doorstep should they phone it. It does not matter if that is real or not—that is what they believe. My fourth ask is for a trusted third-party reporting system that will pass information on with absolutely all identifiable details removed. Callers have to know that they cannot and will not be called or visited by officers, and that they will not be targeted as a result of providing us with information.
Information is not only about initial reports. We also need more people to feel safe when acting as witnesses. My fifth ask is for better protection and care for witnesses. Darren is one of those affected. His house was attacked by armed gang members because of rumours about snitching, and his neighbour’s door was shot through three times. It is a wonder that no one was hurt. Three months later, Darren still had nowhere to move, was afraid to leave his home, and was under the constant threat of another attack.
Maybe Darren was helping the police, or maybe it was just a vicious rumour, but the effect of the failure to protect and move him is the same. Stories like Darren’s are known in my community, and they erode trust. Constituents who have information—children who want to break out of their exploitative relationship with a gang—are afraid to do so, because that is what will happen to them.
As the Minister knows, witnesses are amazingly brave in coming forward, and they deserve our greatest respect, our protection and our help to give them a new, fresh start. However, far too many get the exact opposite. That is what happened to Ashley, who is 16, and his dad, Nathan. Ashley did an amazingly brave thing: he gave evidence against a criminal gang member in a murder trial. He has personally experienced serious violence and has been threatened with death many times because he provided the police with information and stood up and testified in court.
The continuing danger to Ashley’s life is clear, so he and his father were given new identities and were relocated. It is reassuring that this basic protection was offered, but I am sorry to say that it was not followed through. Ashley and Nathan have been badly let down. Before his son gave evidence, Nathan had a regular job and a regular tenancy in a housing association home, which they had to leave. It was a stable life of contribution to the community. However, in the months after the trial, their situation became the stuff of nightmares.
Nathan had to leave his job behind, along with his name. He is now unemployed. He was left without any income because he and Ashley were not given the documentation—simple things such as photo IDs—with their new names, leaving him unable to claim the benefits that he is entitled to and that he and Ashley need to support them through this awful, stressful time. Nathan has been repeatedly forced to reveal their situation to jobcentre counter staff to try to get help. Every single time he does so brings the clear possibility of their being exposed, as well as fear and anxiety that the information could lead to his son’s life being in danger once more.
Nathan has now accrued more than £4,000 of rent arrears through absolutely no fault of his own. The system did not work. It happened because he was stuck for months between landlords, agencies and a local authority—not Newham—that would not talk to other agencies, and because he was given appalling and incorrect advice. The housing association allocated him a new property, but it was not nearly fit for human habitation: it had no heating, no furniture and no cooker; on the other hand, it did contain asbestos. All the while, Nathan and Ashley were penniless, stressed and awfully anxious because Nathan still could not access his benefits.
It came to a head last year. At Christmas they had no money for food, let alone gifts, and no secure home. Nathan was on the brink of returning home to his family in the area that he and Ashley had fled. It would have put their lives at risk of revenge violence, but at least they would have had some food and comfort and some of the basic support, understanding and respect that they had had so little of.
[Intervention from Vernon Coaker] I am sorry to have interrupted my hon. Friend’s flow; I thought she had finished that story. She makes an incredibly important point. Does she agree that the Minister needs to respond fully to these points, particularly in the light of the Government’s policy now to use more children as covert human intelligence sources? The Minister needs to say something about that and to answer my hon. Friend’s points in full detail.
[Lyn Brown continues] I absolutely agree. The system lets down young witnesses like Ashley and their families. It fails them at almost every turn, it puts them at risk and it erodes trust. That trust is necessary for us to get the information that we need, let alone anything else. Hearing these stories makes people in my community less likely to engage with the authorities when they have information that could help us. That has to change.
My fifth ask is for public bodies to have a duty of care placed on them to work together to understand and support families such as Ashley and Nathan’s, because without their help and co-operation, we will not get the information that we need to put an end to the blight of county lines exploitation. We need a national dedicated system of caseworkers trained to act as a single point of contact, working with statutory services; a named representative for those under threat because they have helped us, the police and the courts. They are trying to do the right thing. Nathan, Ashley and others like them deserve a genuine path to a secure future after the brave decisions that they have made.
Much of the violence is fuelled by social media, so my sixth ask is for stronger action against incitement online, whatever form it takes. In recent months, local people have been especially angry about one particular drill music video filmed in my constituency. It is effectively a celebration of gang murder. The rapper brags about killing with knives and guns and attacking people in broad daylight, and gloats about having killed one man by name and planning to kill his brother. He mocks other young men for just talking about murder and not acting. All of this was filmed by masked men in streets that my constituents recognise, because they live there, because they walk and work there every day and because their children play there.
The murders this video is about may be fictitious, but by looking at the online comments we quickly see many young people who believe it is real. They explain the murder references to each other and openly admire the rapper and his group for the supposed killings. The original copy of the video had more than 1 million views—that staggers me. It was taken down, but other copies have since been uploaded, and one has already had more than 120,000 views. The technology to remove those copies automatically exists, as the Select Committee on Home Affairs has repeatedly pointed out. We need to understand why that is not being done.
The law may be unclear about whether such videos illegally incite violence, but I believe they are dangerous. They make the grooming of children easier by glamorising drug dealing and murder as a lucrative and exciting alternative to the hard and unrewarding work they see demonstrated in the lives of their parents. Presented as an alternative economic model, it is offered to children and made to look exciting. The videos do not just glamorise crime; they taunt and humiliate rivals. These are young, impulsive teenagers; there is so much pressure pushing them to respond, and the music itself tells them what response is expected: more knife attacks and more children dead. The Home Affairs Committee called for a wholesale review of the legislation on hate speech, harassment and extremism online to bring the law up to date. I think that that is sorely needed, and a better approach to online incitement should be one of the goals, so that is my sixth ask.
My seventh and final ask brings me back where I started—the nine deaths and the trauma caused in my community and how we can help the healing. After the appalling murder of Sami Sidhom in April, there was an immediate and powerful surge of mutual aid and support in his community of Forest Gate. As I have told the House before, his neighbours rushed to help him and gave him some comfort as he died. They were traumatised, but they received so little support. The trauma is not felt just by the families, friends, schoolmates and neighbours, although of course they suffer the worst. In Forest Gate, there was a palpable feeling that the community was in crisis after Sami died. There was a cumulative effect, though, as it was not just because of Sami but because of all the other young people who had died in the year before, especially CJ, who was just 14 and was shot in a playground in Forest Gate.
We need to provide support for whole communities who are traumatised in the way that I have described. The strong response that I saw in Forest Gate can help local people to cope, recover and heal. Community leaders have a really important role, but often they are volunteers; they give their time and energy freely, and it is simply unfair to expect them to take on all this without training, resources or professional support. I think that we need a professional response to assist communities with the trauma and mental health issues that arise after traumatic incidents, especially those involving young people.
Having spoken to people about what they feel would help, I would like to see the development of peripatetic regional mental health teams, consisting of people who can provide rapid, accessible support for communities after tragic events. My seventh ask is that the Minister works with the Department of Health and Social Care and find a way to make that happen. I would be happy to sit down and think about that some more with him or any other Minister in the Home Office team. I know that Marie Gabriel, soon to be a CBE and chair of the East London NHS Foundation Trust, is keen to support it as well. This is not just about crime; I am sure that all of us can think of other tragic events—some of them not physically very far away from this building—after which mobile teams like that would have been very helpful.
The deaths over the past year have caused so much trauma and pain in my constituency, and they have exposed our failures in this place over many years to prevent the rise of county lines grooming and exploitation, and to give young people the hope and opportunities that would make them safer. The problems cannot all be solved by the Home Office acting alone, but children are dying in my constituency, across London and across the country, and all of us have an enormous responsibility to act. I believe that the Minister could play a very positive role in ensuring that the cross-departmental connections and strategies that we need are created, implemented and sustained. I would support him in that, and I hope to hear that he is committed to making those things happen.
Finally, I place on the record my enormous gratitude to a group of women in West Ham whose children have tragically been caught up in the county lines operation. I have learned so much from those women over the past year. They have been so honest and so generous with their time. I hope that today I have done them proud and represented them properly.